The Open Government Partnership – a success story in how the UK makes policy decisions?

Last week the G8 delivered some real encouragements on transparency – from natural resource transparency, ownership of companies, to an Open Data Charter.

As part of this, the UK is committing to enhance transparency at home as well as abroad – and is a founding member of the Open Government Partnership – an international initiative whereby governments commit to make progress on becoming more ‘open’.  The UK’s draft revised OGP National Action Plan, as published today, outlines how the UK will strive to work towards this agenda.[1]

Ok, so this may not sound particularly ‘sexy’ but it does deserve some thought-time (or at least a blog).  The drafting of this National Action Plan (NAP) has been a test-case in how the UK does open policy-making.  And the content of the draft published today will, for many, be a measure of the success of the process.

So what have the successes been so far?

The process:  Through the action plan drafting process (which involved civil society policy officers meeting weekly with civil servants), there has been greater dialogue between Government and civil society – allowing for both sides to have frank conversations and to better understand the concerns and challenges of the other.  This participation has allowed NGOs to increase the prominence of key issues such as beneficial ownership and extractive industry transparency – key features of the G8 discussions.

The content:  There has been some progress.  The revision has taken the action plan beyond open data to look at open government i.e. not only looking at publishing government data, but ensuring that there is citizen participation that generates accountability, a key thing that civil society has pushed for.  There has been movement on specific areas, for example the draft NAP recognises the need to have strong enforcement of anti-corruption legislation in order to truly have ‘open government’.

And the draft action plan doesn’t avoid some of the difficult areas – such as the UK needing to work with the UK’s Overseas Territories (OT’s) and Crown Dependencies (CDs) to take action on bribery – a previous ‘no-go’ area due to constitutional challenges.  Perhaps particularly interesting in light of the Prime Minister’s successful efforts to get all the UK’s OTs and CDs to sign-up to the multilateral convention on information exchange.

But there have been some challenges.

The drafting process has proved lengthy.  The Government originally intended for the draft to be published in April, but with the high number of Government departments involved and needing to agree the content, it has been delayed until now.

The draft plan omits some essential areas of open government. These need to be addressed and included in the text rather than the ‘civil society-asks annexe’. Specifically, the plan omits commitments to:

–          Strengthen OGP’s eligibility criteria on budget transparency.  Budget transparency is a fundamental part of open government – without extensive, accessible and understandable budget information citizens are unable to hold leaders to account for public expenditure.  Although the UK has made an individual commitment to this area, as current Co-Chair, the UK should prioritise strengthening OGP’s budget transparency eligibility and reporting requirements.  This should be discussed and agreed at the OGP steering group meeting in July, and included as a UK commitment.

–          An anti-corruption strategy or plan.  There have been positive steps with the UK beginning to bring greater coordination to its anti-corruption efforts.  But efforts need to be crystallised and a transparent action plan put in place so that UK citizens know what actions the Government is taking to tackle corruption at home and abroad.

–          Strengthen international accountability initiatives.  Information is useful in so much that it leads to accountability (by citizens, parliament and civil society) and the UK should not shy away from supporting initiatives that build this capacity internationally e.g. Making All Voices Count.

The OGP open policy making process is fascinating in the light of the resurgence of concerns about lobbying. Whilst there is the desire on both sides to engage the public directly in policymaking, it is clear that engaging intelligently is much easier for those who have time and expertise through private, not-for-profit and charitable employment.

The real test of OGP national action plans and this open policy making pilot will be what happens next.  Will NGO’s continue to engage in this process or will they think that the government has been unresponsive?  Will ‘ordinary people’ participate directly in the public consultation (ongoing until 19th September), not just through supporting NGO policy officers to invest time? Ultimately, will policy reflect the will of the people, or the will of the politicians?

A success story?  We will have to wait and see.

Image Photo: gov.uk


[1] Draft, because this is for wider consultation before the final plan is launched in the Autumn, revised, as the first action plan was published in 2010.

Trackbacks

  1. […] a hurry, and Tearfund supports more lobbying transparency (through the Open Government Partnership here for example), but at the moment the bill’s set to stop any group that’s not a political party […]

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